The Vietnam War was a tragedy for the United States – a failed policy costing thousands of lives. But Vietnam suffered an ordeal of greater proportion, losing a good part of a generation while seeing its economy decimated.
In the last of a three-phase project called East of Eden, photographer Pipo Nguyen-duy looks at Vietnam and its future, not with the objective eye of a documentary photographer, but with the warmth of someone who knows the cruelty of war but hopes dearly for peace.
Pipo grew up in Hue, South Vietnam, during the height of the war. From his home, he heard the sound of gunfire daily. In 1975, he immigrated to the United States with members of his family as Hanoi was about to claim victory. He returned 26 years later, and embarked on a project that underscores the toll that the war took on Vietnam and the challenges it faces in the future.
My East of Eden, as he calls this ongoing phase of the project, features landscapes in which children in school uniforms pose in staged, still-life dramas. By choosing children as actors, Pipo projects the story of Vietnam forward, toward an uncertain future. He imagines an ending for a story that for him remains incomplete.
Some photos show scars of the war or settings associated with the war, such as the jungle and bombed out buildings. In one photo, children lie in a circular mass, as if victims of a massacre. In another, a boy, crouching, shoulders a rifle. These photos evoke a sense of the preciousness of youth and the fragility of peace: children play games, perform a dance-like drill, or simply hang out. Their actions present a contrast between the normalcy of peace time and the deprivation of war.
Pipo took photos in rice fields, school grounds and uncompleted buildings, places associated with the quality of life and future prosperity of the country. One photo shows two boys wading in a rice paddy with gestures showing uncertainty, while a woman cultivates the land behind them. The photo highlights the challenge of feeding the nation, a task that has often been unfulfilled.
In choosing youth – too young to be directly touched by a war that ended 39 years ago – as his subject, Pipo reminds us of the length of time it takes to rebuild a nation after it undergoes a long and costly war. For most of us, with the exception of its veterans and their families, Vietnam is over and done with. The Vietnamese feel its reality every day.
Pipo began the first phase of East of Eden shortly after 9/11. Shot from 2002-2006, it depicts Vietnamese and American landscapes. He responded to the idea of the idealized American landscape, a Garden of Eden, as pictured by the Hudson River School, a group of 19th century of American painters.
Its vocabulary of symbols refers to the two countries’ unique but not unrelated experiences with violent disruption – the Vietnam War and 9/11. In a photo taken in Vietnam, a young girl stands in jungle terrain near a decaying stand likely used by a sniper. In another photo, referencing 9/11, a boy, Pipo’s son, stands with his back to the camera, in front of a cloud of smoke pouring from a hillside.
Pipo interweaves scenes of Vietnam – jungle, swamps, and ponds – with domestic scenes of forests, streams, farm fields, and suburban backyards. Into these otherwise pleasing settings, Pipo inserts unsettling elements suggestive of disruption, war and violence. In a still stream casting reflections of the woods sits a discarded recliner chair; in a field past harvest time, rotting pumpkins remain scattered around a rocking horse. The idea of connecting the two nations’ experience with violent disruption seems plausible, but the thrust of the idea is hard to perceive from this series of images often striking for their color, balance and beauty, as shown on Pipo’s website.
The second phase consists of photos of amputees and other disabled veterans from the war, including Pipo’s brother, whom he photographed during another visit to Vietnam. Through poses, expressions, props, and settings, Pipo accentuates the normalcy and happiness in their lives, overcoming neglect by the Vietnamese government. In Father and Son (2005), despite blindness and a terribly scarred face, a war veteran exhibits a peaceful expression as he sits under a tree, nestled close to his young son.
This project, supported by a Guggenheim fellowship, made real the sacrifices of these veterans. Pipo’s attention to the details of each landscape – a veteran delicately balances on one leg while holding an umbrella – allow the photos to succeed as portraits of individuals, not just amputees. Pipo, highly effective in staging these still-life dramas, uses costume and setting as would a set designer. His subjects, true performers, interact with each other and their surroundings. Consider just one example: a school boy in a bombed out building looks through a window to another boy who holds a model of an airplane.
The humanity behind Pipo’s work gives it life and keeps us engaged. We can not help but see the children pictured in My East of Eden – in their innocence– as part of a bigger family, our own. Clearly, Pipo cares about his subjects and about his native country. In 2005, he bought a motorcycle for a Vietnamese rickshaw driver, with whom he rode from the southern to northern ends of Vietnam, a trip he documented for another project.
East of Eden is a thought-provoking visual essay on a country that is embedded in our history if not in our imagination. If the Biblical Garden of Eden is an imagined paradise, Vietnam is a flesh and blood, evolving place. Several of the amputees pictured look upward, to the heavens, as if indicating they have their minds on something larger than their physical well-being. By looking to the distant horizon, they make us consider the spiritual realm.
These photos speak not just to Vietnam’s struggle for self-determination, but for every person’s struggle for freedom, dignity and respect.